Thursday, December 13, 2007

The tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) were laughing at us on Monday. I'm not sure where they were exactly – probably deep in rotten stumps and old root holes – but they must have been laughing at Scott and me bushwhacking our way around the dark woods in the rain Monday night.

I'm glad we could give them something to laugh about, because they're probably not very happy about their breeding season so far. Tiger salamanders need shallow bodies of water in which to breed, and out in our area that's usually vernal pools. Although the rain was just right to put them in the mood, and although they usually breed in December, Scott and I firmly demonstrated that there is no water in the vernal pools in that corner of the Delaware Valley.

I can only imagine how frustrating that must be for the salamanders. It's the right time of year, it's a nice rainy night, but no water in the pools.

Remember these salamanders only mate one time per year. They wait all year for some action. The females are ready to burst with eggs; they can barely walk. Mid December rolls around, the rain pitter-patters all around them, but the water's not there. They might have to wait until January or February, horny as hell and hoping for storms.

Early on I knew something was odd when I couldn't locate several small pools that should have been near where we parked. I'd hyped the spot to Scott as a wonderful series of pools and ponds in the woods, and it was frustrating to find nothing of what I'd promised on the ground.

We hiked on towards a larger pair of pools, but all we found were high-and-dry shrubs that should have been sitting on little islands in the middle of the water.

I should also emphasize the difficulty of navigating in only-moderately familiar woods at night. These pools, surrounded by saplings and brush, are sometimes tricky to spot in broad daylight, and I've only been there a couple times. We found ourselves wandering and reading the slope of the landscape around us to find where they should have been. After two hours of that in hip waders (we really thought we'd be in water), we were tuckered out.

It's rare to get skunked so thoroughly. I usually find a redback salamander ( Plethodon cinereus) or some kind of frog or toad. All we saw were warm blooded animals. Scott almost stepped on a rabbit, and I noticed the eye shines of a group of deer just off the trail. That's a little eerie – to look to your right and see six sets of disembodied eyes glowing at you from off in the dark. The strangest find was the turkey roosting in a tree above us. We never actually saw it. We had stopped so Scott could take off his sweater (we had dressed for cold and wet, but we worked up a sweat hiking around) and then heard a whooshing and crashing noise in the tree tops above us. We tried to catch whatever it was in our flashlight beams, but it was always one noisy jump ahead of us. It was too loud and clumsy for an owl, and it did make a little clucking gobble noise that made me wonder. Yesterday a friend confirmed that turkeys do roost in trees, so now I'm pretty sure that's what it was.

Our season's first failure in the bag, the next step will be checking out some other spots to see if they've got any water. In the meantime let's pray for rain.

Monday, December 10, 2007

I’m planning a tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) run tonight. Again there’s a possibility the weather might not cooperate, but it looks like the best odds this week, so we’ll give it a shot.

I’ve been focusing my herping energy in a couple other directions lately: I’ve been working on an essay on herping for a writing competition, and I’ve been scouting from my laptop. By that I mean I’ve been trying to use Google Earth to identify vernal pools from satellite images. There aren’t as many as I had expected, but I think I’ve found a couple promising areas to explore.

Scott came over yesterday afternoon to join me in looking at satellite images and matching promising sites to the NJ road atlas I use in the car. He is also feeling a little cabin fever, and we’re hoping the tiger run helps with our condition. Even if we find nothing, the big to-do of it all (getting out of work early, packing special equipment like nets and flashlights, driving out of the city, wandering around the woods in the dark) should use up some energy.

Next weekend I think I’ll try a local stream bed salamandering. There’s a red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber) spot in the city I’d like to investigate a little more. Wish us luck.